11-23-03, 6:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
SAN DIEGO _ When the Bengals took the field for Sunday's kickoff, the Qualcomm Stadium scoreboard gave them the best of news. Seattle's impending victory over Baltimore would put them in first place all by themselves by a half game in the AFC North even before they took a snap against the Chargers. Plus, the Steelers' victory over Cleveland opened the possibility that the Bengals could take a two-game lead over both with a win here.
But as the 6-5 Ravens came back with a stunning overtime victory fueled by 17 fourth-quarter points, and the Bengals threw the gauntlet back down in an effort to keep pace in first place by taking a 28-13 half-time lead on a career-high three touchdown catches by wide receiver Chad Johnson.
The Bengals responded to 13 straight Charger points to reel off 14 of their own in the final 1:25 of the half as quarterback Jon Kitna tied his own career best with four touchdown passes on 16 of 24 passing for 168 yards.
But the last touchdown drive, a 43-second blitz after the Bengals stopped the Chargers on fourth down, was the Kelley Washington Show as the rookie receiver beat cornerback Quentin Jammer on a four-yard fade route in the right corner of the end zone with 11 seconds left in the half. Moments earlier, Washington went in the air on the right sideline to wrestle the ball away from Jammer for a 30-yard play that held up on replay. Then, Washington took a quick pass on other side and alertly got out of bounds for a nine-yard gain.
It was on a similar play a minute before on which Johnson rang up his third touchdown. In what amounted to a long lateral from Kitna at the end of the line of scrimmage, Johnson froze rookie cornerback Sammy Davis with a juke to the outside and cut inside for a 12-yard touchdown with 1:25 left in the half.
The Bengals made no bones about going after the Chargers' young secondary when they cashed on their first two drives with Johnson working against Jammer, a second-year first-round pick. Johnson scored his first on a five-yard throw when he kept his feet in on a sideline route. Then he scored with 3:35 left in the first quarter on third-and-goal when he caught a slant in front of Jammer from four yards out as the Bengals took a 14-0 lead and Johnson went on to finish the half with 71 yards on seven catches. Washington had four catches for 52 yards and wide receiver Kevin Walter logged his first NFL catch for nine yards the play before Washington scored.
Vying for their first win on the West Coast since 1990, the Bengals came out like a division leader is supposed to against a last-place team even if it's on the road. By the time the Chargers got their first first down, the Bengals had 11 first downs, 144 yards, and running back Corey Dillon had his longest run of the season when he cut back up the middle for a 39-yard gain.
Dillon had 70 yards on nine carries in the half even though he didn't start. Johnson had 38 yards on six carries as they appeared to rotate a series here and a drive there. Each had 10-yard runs in the drive that followed Steve Christy's 26-yard field goal that cut Cincinnati's lead to 14-13 lead.
As quickly as the Bengals had it, they lost it when the Chargers ran off 13 straight points in a span of 11 minutes to cut the lead to 14-13 with 4:08 left in the first half on Christy's field goal. That was set up on Kitna's fumble after Chargers defensive end Marcellus Wiley appeared to race by right tackle Willie Anderson and sack Kitna from the blindside while also hitting the ball. Defensive end Adrian Dingle fell on the Bengals' first turnover in two weeks on the Cincinnati 40.
When the Chargers did break loose, it was with a bang. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson went over 1,000 yards for the season when he blew up the middle for a 38-yard gain, and Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie hit a wide-open David Boston down the right sideline for a 37-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in the first quarter. It looked to be a blown coverage with cornerback Tory James not running down the side with Boston and free safety Mark Roman converging late on the play.
Tomlinson, who has had two 100-yard days against the Bengals in two tries, looked to be headed that way again with 68 yards on nine carries in the first half. Flutie, playing 19 years to the day he Hail Maryed Boston College to a last-play victory over Miami, needed another miracle. He was six of 18 passing in the first half for 98 yards.
Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh dressed for the first time this season after suffering a hamstring injury the week of the opener. With Dillon apparently as close to 100 percent for the first since injuring his knee and then his groin in the second and third weeks of the season, head coach Marvin Lewis replaced Houshmandzadeh with running back Kenny Watson on the inactive list.
Also inactive Sunday for Cincinnati were TE Reggie Kelly, CB Jeff Burris, OL Scott Kooistra, OL Victor Leyva, OLB LaDairis Jackson, and DE Elton Patterson. Shane Matthews is the third quarterback.